Journey of a Quarter-Century

Alternative rock boasted a gloomy, cynical outlook in the early 1990s, but one slice of the genre’s iconic soundtrack will always remain upbeat, thanks to Blues Traveler. Formed in 1986 in Princeton, N.J., the band wood-shedded around the New York City area for several years before John Popper’s cheery harmonica and literate lyrics, along with the jammy rhythms of Chan Kinchla, Brendan Hill and Bobby Sheehan, really caught fire. But once they did, the band rocketed to the top, particularly with its multi-platinum 1994 album “four” and its Grammy-winning hit single, “Run-Around.”

Since that peak of success, the band has weathered its share of challenges, including Sheehan’s death from a drug overdose in 1999 (he was replaced by Kinchla’s younger brother, Tad) and Popper’s battle with obesity and his surviving a heart attack. But Blues Traveler and its positive outlook on life and music soldiers on, still touring the world nonstop and releasing new albums every couple of years.

Folio Weekly: How do you think Blues Traveler’s newest album, “Suzie Cracks the Whip,” stacks up with the rest of the band’s discography?

Chan Kinchla: On the last few albums, we experimented with some different ideas that yielded ups and downs. On this record, we concentrated on writing five to six good songs, and then worked with several outside songwriters, which got us out of our rut and helped John concentrate on the stuff he was really feeling. As a result I think, top to bottom, all the songs are really strong. Plus, we’ve never had so much fun making a record. Writing in Austin allowed us to come to Los Angeles to record, and all we had to do was hash it out, tighten it up and play it well. You can feel how much fun the album was for us.

F.W.: What about that title? Is there a real Suzie out there cracking the whip?

C.K.: This cute little 20-year-old girl, who had just moved to L.A., was working in the studio where we recorded. But she was kind of a badass, running the boards and doing a lot. When we were doing the photo shoot, John had this big bullwhip, so of course we had to give it to Suzie for some shots. Later on, she’d be so sweet: “Guys, could you, umm …” And we’d be like, “Whoa! Suzie cracks the whip!” It captured the fun nature of the recording — and it’s an evocative title.

F.W.: When Blues Traveler started out, metal and grunge ruled the world. Did you feel like outsiders playing jammy, rootsy and upbeat music?

C.K.: Completely outsiders! We started in NYC doing this eclectic hippie/funk/jazz/blues/rock/pop thing; we really had no rules as to what the band should sound like. We were always on the outside building our own little world, and then, when we put out “four,” all of a sudden those eccentricities appealed to everyone and we went from outliers to straddling all these popular genres. It was an interesting transformation.

F.W.: What’s most interesting is that you’ve maintained nearly the same lineup for 25 years.

C.K.: Emotionally, we’re all still in high school [Laughs.], which is good and bad. But we’ve been through everything. At this point, we’re like family — we can get in fights and arguments, but we know we’ll make up and figure it out.

F.W.: A lot of what you’ve been through relates to record label ups and downs. What have those been like?

C.K.: Back when we started, it was all major labels. Our first deal was on Americana, a subsidiary of A&M. They got bought out by Polygram, which was then bought by Interscope. There was so much money flying around, but the system worked really well if you were one of the 30 bands force-fed to the public on radio and MTV. I have to give A&M credit, because they let us put out three records that did very poorly before “four” had such big success. Then, the bottom fell out and the big companies started concentrating on monster hits, not nurturing bands. Now, we’re just looking for an opportunity to be creatively fulfilled, because records keep the band revitalized and the crowd coming to shows. It’s a cool time to be a part of the music business because everyone — artists, labels and fans — can get what they want.

F.W.: What are Blues Traveler’s long-term plans, now that you’ve passed the 25-year mark? Another quarter-century?

C.K.: At this point, that’s the game plan. I don’t know what else we’d do. We’re going to keep putting this new record up our flagpole, keep having fun and after that we’ll reconvene and figure it out. We’ll always be working on something.

Nick McG

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